Over the past year or so I have gradually been drawn into the world of science and data in sports. I was first exposed to this while I was at the University of Brighton with my housemates taking Sports & Exercise Science degrees while I stuck to my Sociology of Sports. What I saw from my housemates, especially when they used me as a guinea pig, was science being used in sports, mostly to test athletes. That was fine but recently I have seen that next step to how science (from maths and economics to physics, bio-chemistry and physiology) can improve the sport, club and sportsmen that I love.
There are two areas of science in sport that I have become engrossed in. The use of data and new ways of interpreting data in soccer and the use of physiology to improve players and keep them ready to play for a whole season without wear and tear injuries.
After being about 5 years late to the scene I read Moneyball, the baseball story of how the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane took a broke, losing club and signed nobody’s who became superstars consistently taking the club to the playoffs on a shoe-string budget. The main secret to his success was to look at the players who have been overlooked and dismissed by conventional baseball wisdom. Billy Beane, who was himself a conventional baseball player (big and strong, he looked the part) but never managed to find the success everyone assumed would come his way on the field. Beane used a new way to interpret the huge amount of data that is collected on individual players throughout the whole of baseball in America. He evaluated players better than anyone else, saw what the really important abilities were in a baseball player and signed these overlooked and desperate players for a lot less than the regular Joes floating around the league.
I have read articles and books about how these ideas and attitudes are trickling into top flight soccer, but it is trickling slowly. New technologies such as pro-zone and new data gathering companies are available and create huge amounts of data to be analyzed and interpreted in many different ways, however, from anecdotes I have heard it is mostly used to settle the argument the manager had with the central defender about being out of position. Many managers and coaches do not use this to learn anything new, just to reinforce his all-knowing genius about the game. I can see the frustration on the face of the pro-zone analyst now, knowing that the data shows certain facts but the manager is too stuck in his ways to change what he was brought up doing. This is the key to the slow embrace of new ideas and new ways of thinking creeping into soccer. Soccer is a working class game and has a quite obvious intellectual prejudice. It would be crazy to generalize too much about the British working class. There is a strong working class tradition of self-education, as one soccer administrator was pushing to introduce coaching courses he was mocked by clubs who just saw it as “some new fangled thing thought up by some college boys”, suggesting that there is some shame in being educated. Even with the influence of foreign coaches and the obvious benefits of thinking about the game, the anti-intellectual attitudes that the soccer administrator encountered seem to be widespread in the English game. You can count on one hand the number of English players in the top leagues who have University degrees or even stayed on in education past 16 years old and this could be a large part of the problem.
The only way to overcome these attitudes is the same way we overcame (not completely of course) the overt racism in English soccer. To prove that this thinking works. Some high level black players proved they had bottle, could play in the cold, thought quickly and were hard workers, the top clubs need to show that science has a huge part to play in the world’s most popular sport. This will be a slow and frustrating struggle as some clubs have shown us the way forward. Arsenal, on a relatively limited budget, consistently finish in the rewarding top 4 spots in the Premier League. Wenger is a trained economist is addicted to statistics, if you know more then you win more or as the former Arsenal captain Tony Adams wrote in his autobiography on first meeting Wenger, “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George (Graham, former manager)”. Lyon has shown everyone how to manipulate the transfer market using the data available on players to take a small provincial town team to dominate the French League and regularly reach the knockout stages of the Champions League. AC Milan have found the secret to eternal youth in their famous Milan Lab, they found that just by studying a players jump the scientists can now workout to 70% accuracy whether he would get injured. Millions of pieces of data used correctly kept Maldini, Costacurta, Inzaghi and others performing at the top for Milan well into their mid to late 30s. Sam Allardyce is the best hope for the soccer science geeks. He is a gruff, working class man who has taken on the use of stats and kept Bolton competitive for little money. He embraced this new thinking and reaped the rewards, seeing all of this hopefully means that soccer managers will now cease to rely on gut instincts alone. From my own personal experience I went through a phase of relying on gut instinct and I discovered pretty quickly that my guts have got shit for brains!
With more success stories like the ones above and the players moving into coaching after being exposed to the strength of data and science in the game we might be moving away from the “this is the way it is done” mentality that has held English soccer (and American as they seem to just try and replicate the way the English do soccer, but sadly leave out the best bits!) back in the dark ages. The soccer Enlightenment is upon us and I will personally be involved in pushing the intellectual agenda upon the world.
The summer is almost over, it has been the busiest summer I have experienced with 3 teams to coach and every weekend from the end of May until now has been full of work. Any chance I had hoped for a short break has been shattered, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend, as the club teams are eager to prepare for the Fall season. I am excited to try and introduce some ideas and methods I have read up on this year (obviously they are used for the pros but I will hope to adjust them for the Atlantic United soccer players). The Premier League is also upon us very soon, my fantasy team is in, and my hope that Chelsea will win the League is again in full flame. Also, I would like to wish my old team in Iceland, Sindri, good luck as they are in the playoffs and hoping to be promoted this season. Áfram Sindri!!!
I am in the middle of reading a great book called Soccernomics (highly recommended) and there is a particularly good story on the penalty shootout of the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow between Chelsea and Manchester United. A Basque economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta had gathered data on Manchester United’s penalty habits. Through a friend this report found it’s way to manager of Chelsea at the time, Avram Grant. Ignacio had discovered that the United keeper Van Der Sar tended to dive to the kickers “natural side” more often than most keepers, eg. A right footed player naturally shoots to the right side of the goalkeeper. He emphasized that Van Der Sar saves the vast majority of penalties at mid-height between 1-1.5 meters. Cristiano Ronaldo stops his run up sometimes before shooting and if he does this he shoots to the keepers right 85% of the time. If the keeper moves early on a Ronaldo penalty then he always scores.
Please take some time to watch the youtube clip as it shows the Chelsea players doing exactly as was written in the report (except Ashley Cole who is very dim, even for a pro soccer player). Until that is either Van Der Sar or one of the Man United staff has clocked on to what is happening. Watch Van Der Sar get inside Anelka’s head, pointing where he knows Anelka has been told to put the ball. It is quite something. The rest, as they say, is history.
I am halfway through this book and I love Soccernomics. An intelligent, data driven soccer book. I will be searching the internet for further journal articles and books on this subject to quench my thirst for knowledge in this emerging field.